Having spent a lot of time editing, it’s safe to say that nearly everyone has some punctuating deficits. Some even have their own signature commonly-made mistakes. (Heck, I’m just waiting to realize I’ve mispunctuated in this post!) Nevertheless, there’s no denying that punctuation marks are good for a lot more than building emoticons. Right?
Punctuation problems fall into a number of categories:
Completely changes the meaning – Which one of these would you rather witness at the zoo?
Panda eats shoots and leaves.
Panda eats, shoots and leaves.
Drives English teachers crazy – Come on, kids, just undo the contraction to choose between your and you’re.
Doesn’t warrant a philosophical debate – No matter how hard you try, you can’t negotiate whether the period and comma go inside or outside the quotes. It’s not the meaning, the number of words or any of the other crazy ways of rationalizing I’ve heard. It’s the rule: Commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. “Period.”
The one that keeps making a philosophical debate – You guessed it, it’s the serial comma. This is the one that comes right before conjunctions like “and” in a series of three or more. When I went to school, there was no comma before the “and” or “or” when listing things. It seems that now the fashion has changed, with more editing commentators (yes, there are such people) preferring to include that final comma. No ifs, ands, or buts about it!
Makes no sense, but we’ve got to do it correctly anyway – Do you have a tendency to mix up “its” and “it’s”? I know better, but if I’m not paying attention, I sometimes reach for the wrong one. “Its” – the one without the apostrophe (thank you quirky English language) is possessive. “It’s” only works if you can break it down into “it is.” It’s true.
The much-overlooked compound modifier – Did you know that when two words work together to modify a noun, it’s called a compound modifier? The key is that the words must be combined to give meaning. In this case they’re joined by a hyphen. Consider “long-term parking.” It could not be long and term parking – the two words must collaborate to make meaning. That’s a compound modifier. However, if you wanted to park over the long term, there would be no hyphen because long (one word) is the modifying the noun (term). Confused? A simple way to check with long-term and its kin, short-term and mid-term, is to see if a noun comes next. If they’re holding up a noun, they need a hyphen. If “term” is the noun, there’s no hyphen.
Above all else, punctuating well makes our writing easier to understand. Reading a badly punctuated sentence is like driving down a dusty, rutted road in an old pick-up truck. You’ll get to the end eventually, but how many times were you thrown off the road on the way?